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Pre-Retirees Much More Optimistic About Retirement Than Those Already Retired

Category: General Retirement Issues

October 10, 2011 — How is your retirement going? Is it the dream you looked forward to for so many years – with plenty of time and resources to do the things you have always wanted to? Or is it disappointing – are you scraping by financially, plagued by poor health, bored and feeling unfulfilled?

A new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found a startling contrast between the attitudes of pre-retirees and those who have already retired. Sadly, pre-retirees are much more optimistic about their overall happiness and well-being than people who have already retired. As Robert Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health commented on an NPR program, “Retirement Reality Not As Rosy as Expectations”, the bad news is that people are unrealistic about how hard it is to successfully retire: “People thinking about retirement don’t envision any of the potential problems that they could face,” he says. “But you have to face up to them, because otherwise it’s very hard just when events start happening to respond.”

NPR posted a question on its Facebook page recently asking retirees about their retirement preparations: “How are you preparing for retirement? If you’re already retired, what kind of changes have you had to make? Do you think you’ll ever be able to afford to retire?” . The post resulted in an amazing 803 comments in just a few days.

Recurrent Themes
As you might expect, there was a range of responses. Here were some of the main themes we found:

– Quite a few people are really unhappy. Some barely have enough to eat, while others are just scraping by

– Cynicism is rampant, as is anger and disappointment. The stock market has dealt most retirees a very serious and depressing blow. Many feel they will never be able to retire, or if they do they will live in poverty. The government is blamed for a lot of this

– Many people retired before age 65, which is now coming back to bite them (they didn’t save enough, and feel they are too old to land a job)

– Unexpected health issues have derailed many a retirement

– There are those who are very happy in their retirements. Many of these folks appear to have prepared well – they have enough money to do the things they want, and they have escaped serious health issues

– Several of the people who felt the best prepared had careers in the public sector and have good pension plans. Others saved and scrimped to prepare

– Younger people have different reactions than baby boomers. Some are worried and blame baby boomers for ruining their retirement. One thing that is striking about the younger folks who posted is that they have gotten the message about the need to prepare for retirement; many of them are saving, saving, saving. Unfortunately there are also younger people who haven’t been able to find meaningful work; they fear that they will not have enough good earning years to realize a comfortable retirement.

Here are some snippets from comments at Facebook as well as those made in earlier Topretirements blog posts about this issue. You can read all of the NPR Facebook comments here:

The Really Unhappy:
jP. “Preparing for retirement” = “pray I don’t live that long” for many people, I fear.

Lydia. I will not retire till it’s time for me to drop dead

Kathryn. Don’t see myself as being able to retire. When I can no longer work I will be in no position to maintain my present life.

Cara. Seeing people in their 70’s still working full time to get by is disheartening. Of all the things I worry about, this is probably at the top of my list.

Susan. Our retirement “plan” and retirement reality are two very different things. All it took was one little fall from a bicycle at the age of 66…

?? I will never be able to stop working

Jesse. Die young!

Younger People:
Sara. I’m 32 and currently in graduate school. I probably won’t be able to start my career until about 40 at the earliest. When you figure in another 10-20 years to pay off student loans, *if* I am able to get a job in my field and not just be an…

Don’t Plan on Retiring

Zalina. I love my job (physician). I hope I never *have* to retire. Intend to work until I no longer can.

Struggling with retirement:

Sylvia. We are thankful that we still have part time jobs to supplement our social security and hope we will stay healthy enough to continue working a few more years

Carol. I thought I was, until two things happened: the housing bubble burst and my work hours were reduced. Now my mortgage is under water and my job is ending in December.

Lynn. My husband & I both retired this past year; it’s a lot crazier than we thought. Trimmed the cable bill, frequenting restaurants less often. Not buying warranties or extension plans or renewing annual termite inspections, etc. the cost of food, gas, & utilities, not to mention helping 2 college educated adult kids who are w/o jobs, is putting a strain on us. We live in DC so instead of going to the Kennedy Center we stay home & play games or rent movies.

Feeling very confident:

Michael. I am 60 and a public worker in Wyoming. I can retire in three years and my wife will follow a year later. We will sell our house and move to warmer climes. I am pleased that the State of Wyoming kept its well-funded defined retirement plan

Kathy. I retired early because I had no mortgage, no bills. My time is my own, and though sometimes I miss the “structure” of work, I now can expand my mind, pursue my interests in my own individual way

Barbara. My husband and I are both retired. He, in 1986 and me in 1996. We never felt Social Security or our state pensions would be enough to live on, so we have scraped and saved all our married lives. We’ve invested in real estate rentals sufficient to amount to second jobs for both of us.

Kathy. You can’t beat retirement with a stick. Best thing that ever happened to me. Even without a large income my days are filled with so much to do.
The best advice about retirement preparation/attitude came from Rich:

“Retirement is fantastic and there are really no negatives if preparation has been made. Some may just love work — maybe they SHOULDN’T retire. Those who have no choice have the biggest preparation tasks.
I think the difficulty most people have with retirement is that they are (maybe for the first time) fully responsible for themselves. YOU have to make decisions about your life, your activities, your finances, and everything else. YOU have to prepare — whether you spend 5, 10, 20 or 50 years saving or planning financially, YOU need to be aware what your resources and your costs will be. YOU need to be responsible for yourself — YOU can’t overspend if you want your money to last your lifetime. YOU have to think about what will make you happy or content (hobbies, more work, charities, travel, grandkids) and act to do these things within your means.
Whether you are prepared or not, the responsibility is YOURS to do something about it. That’s really what retirement is.”

How Ready for Retirement Are You?
10 Worst Retirement Mistakes

So How Is Your Retirement Going? Please share with us your experiences in the Comments section below!

Posted by John Brady on October 10th, 2011


  1. I agree with two of the responses above…people who retired from the government with solid pensions are in pretty good shape and you can’t beat retirement with a stick. I’ve retired from my Government job and my small pension plus the money I saved and the fact that I have health insurance for life let me live my life pretty comfortably. I continue to sell real estate as a part-time occupation because I love working with people to help they find homes…but don’t have to strive to be a “top producer.” I’m just enjoying life! I feel guilty every day because I no longer havethe frustration of having to work for fools while my friends struggle to get up and go to their place of work.

    by Shirley Kappa — October 12, 2011

  2. My economic life has always been modest out of necessity: Small houses; small family; ordinary cars; cheap hotels and airfares when I/we travel; backpacking (young) then car camping (older/w/children) vacations in the mountains and deserts; my/our one “luxury” was living in the desirable part of our city (good schools, shopping, proximity to libraries, etc.). My advice: live below your income; invest in IRA & 401(k) accounts if at all possible, otherwise save as little or as much as you can–it all counts. Result: less financial stress and frustration at retirement. For many of us, we either have time or money. I retired at 62 with reduced pension (fortunate, I know) and social security benefits, and I am happy, content, and financially fine. Sure, the economic crisis has reduced my retirement investments, but my modest monthly income from my other retirement sources keeps me solvent and satisfied for now. Plan as we may, we cannot forecast the impact of future external economic events. We have to make the best, and dare I say be grateful, for the positives in our lives right now.

    by Donna Jacobs — October 12, 2011

  3. My story is similiar to Donna’s. My wife ant I lived a modest lifestyle. Never needing to have the latest and greatest in our lives. We never wanted for anything, we took nice vacations, but lived within our means. A $15,000 car gets you the same places as a $50,000 car. We both had/have good jobs and both invested in IRA’s and 401K’s. My wife retired 8 years ago at 55, I am planning on retiring next year at 58. My main concern is health care costs, but we will handle those the best we can. My other concern is what to do with my life out of work. I will need to find a hobby or something to occupy my time but I have time to figure that out

    by lnduncan — October 12, 2011

  4. Maybe I’m a bit spoiled in my friends, but they all to a person LOVE their retirement times, no matter if the financial circumstances are well or modest. Not one person has said they want to go back to the daily work grind, although they admit to missing their friends. Others, who are working into their 70s are also happy in what they do, and the combined wage & SS payment has to be a plus. But the happiest, freeist, servingist folks have put the commutes and office/plant hours behind them. Secret seems to be living w/in the means you’ve been dealt.

    by Cary Mebach — October 12, 2011

  5. One piece of research I have not been able to obtain is – how much monthly income do I need to be retired? 4,000 , 5,000 , 6,000 a month? I have made spreadsheets attempting to estimate catagories (medical premiums, utilities, food etc…) but wonder if I am underestimating such catagories or forgetting a catagory. It would be nice when looking at some of those adult active communities if one could obtain what the median income is for the retired folks that live in such a community.

    by Bill Baptista — October 12, 2011

  6. In reply to Bill’s inquiry as to how much do I need to retire.

    Actually for me that is backwards logic. The question is WHAT DO YOU HAVE to retire on.

    It is fairly easy to figure it out. Social Security, you can get the info from them. How much have you earned, paid into the system and what will you get per month.

    Do you have medical coverage into retirement, provided by your work or will you need to pay for it? If you have some health issues in certain states you may not be able to get coverage. Again,it is easy to research the numbers with an insurance broker.

    If you are looking for one of the simple stock answers, I’ve read 80% and I’ve read 100% of your present income. What does that mean? Basically nothing. You might be paying college tuition for your kid. The kid graduates and you just reduced your needed income by 20-50,000. You sell your home and use the equity to pay cash for a less expensive place and you no longer have to pay a mortgage.

    I plan on retiring in about a year and will be 62. Social security will be 1800 a month for me and 1600 for my wife. Health insurance is 14000 a year-that is 1167 a month-A SHOCKER. THE REST NEEDS TO COME FROM 40 YEARS WORTH OF SAVINGS. It is a scary number.

    Median income in a given community is likely unavailable. To me it is unimportant. I know what food costs, I know what utilities cost, I know what it costs to fuel and service a car, tack on 20% for mad money, tack on 10% for stuff you missed and then figure where you can afford to live.


    by Dave — October 12, 2011

  7. Retired four years ago – foolishly planed on my investments with Social security to enjoy a good retirement. Based on present market conditions we had to scale down our life style. Bummer – since you worked hard all your life for the “Golden Years”. Is their an answer to this situation ??????????

    by jerry — October 13, 2011

  8. Here is an interesting and parallel article we discovered after we wrote this:
    “Do You Lie to Yourself About Retirement”, with several myths that people create for themselves.

    by John Brady — October 14, 2011

  9. Induncan, since you are thinking now about what to do after retiring to occupy your time, per your statement; “My other concern is what to do with my life out of work, I will need to find a hobby or something to occupy my time but I have time to figure that out,” I would start working on that immediately.
    I retired with two good pensions from public agencies two years ago at 56 after a lot of preparation. All has gone well as planned except for what to do now. That has been difficult for me even though I tried to plan for it before retiring. Moving from the Bay Area to a new house in Northern California kept my wife and I busy for a while, but then the boredom and lack of activities had a negative impact on me. I am back playing some golf again but am trying to figure out what to do long term. This is an issue for some new retirees so try and resolve it before retiring if possible.

    by Dennis — October 16, 2011

  10. My mom will about to retire next year. Although we are ready to give her the best of care she needs in her succeeding years, she has already managed to build up a secure retirement earlier for herself. I didn’t know that insurance could save up for your retirement. I agree with Dave when he says that we should think more on “WHAT DO YOU HAVE to retire on”. Good thing my mom was able to prepare herself enough for retirement. She has health insurance, life insurance and even social security. We have nothing to worry when it comes to her financial needs anymore.

    by Celine Rickman — October 18, 2011

  11. To Reply to Dennis and others who are thinking about what to do with all the extra time in retirement – really check out those adult active communities.
    There is truly a lot to keep you busy both physically, mentally and socially.
    We made our choice at Sun City Festival just outside of Surprise in Arizona.
    Here is the direct link to it –
    If you go visit it ask for Elaine Ransom, very professional and not hard sale type. Has been very informative, helpful both while we decided what lot to buy and options for model home we wanted as well as passing on information since we bought. All the best in your retirement, may they truly be golden and not tarnished.

    by Bill Baptista — October 18, 2011

  12. Retirement takes years of preparation and saving…and for those that own their home free & clear maybe a reverse mortgage might help.

    by GaryVH4R — October 18, 2011

  13. Many truths here. In retirement, you truly are responsible for yourself, your health, and your state of mind maybe more than any other time of life. Making prudent financial decisions early in retirement will ensure that you can afford additional health care expenses later. If you are over age 70, you need to know your options at retirement communities. Living alone in a house as you age is not the path to happy & healthy. But are you ready for that?

    by Laura — October 21, 2011

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